SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Although it was almost exactly five years ago to the day, Arizona Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea still vividly remembers his first taste of coach Bruce Arians' brutal honesty.
Playing for the Indianapolis Colts, Bethea walked into a meeting room on the heels of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Arians was still settling into a head-coaching role for the first time as Chuck Pagano had just been diagnosed with leukemia and the Colts were beginning preparations for the next game against the Green Bay Packers.
Bethea quickly found out that Arians would bring a different approach to running the team. There, on the large projector screen at the front of the team meeting room, was a list of about five players Arians identified. The list included Bethea, who played 54 snaps without a tackle, interception or much impact at all on the game.
Arians, in not-so-gentle terms, let it be known to Bethea that he and his teammates on the list had to do better.
"That was really, like, my first time ever being called out," said Bethea, who was in his seventh NFL season at the time. "A lot of times, you know that as a player, being one of those guys on the team where the guys are going to follow my lead, I might have to play well. But for Coach to come out and say that, straight up, that was kind of the first of that. And then there’s been other times where he’s just come out and said, ‘You guys suck, your play is garbage’ -- so you know, there’s some fun sound bites listening to BA."
Indeed, Arians has carved a niche for himself as the NFL's resident truth-teller. He doesn't hold back with his team and he's equally blunt with the media. What you see is what you get.
Although he might not know it yet, when Arians looks across the field on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, he'll see an opposing head coach with a similar no-spin philosophy in Niners first-year coach Kyle Shanahan.
Separated by a little more than 27 years of age and coaching experience, Arians and Shanahan came up in the game in very different ways but hold similar views on how to relate to players.
Arians played quarterback at Virginia Tech, and one of his earliest coaching influences was legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Arians spent two years as running backs coach at Alabama in the early 1980s. In the days before social media and athlete adulation, Bryant was known for his hard-charging style. It stuck with Arians.
"Coaches who tried to sugarcoat stuff, they’re basically lying to you," Arians said. "Other guys who say, 'This is how I do it and this is how it’s going to be,' I really respected that as a player and tried to take that into my coaching. I worked with one of the best in Coach Bryant, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything. He just told you how he felt and it was the truth all the time, so the truth never hurts. I think the players respect it and they can deal with it."
When Arians was learning under Bryant, Shanahan was a toddler growing up in a football family, learning the game under his father, Mike, who was then the offensive coordinator at Florida. Kyle Shanahan was all-in with football from a young age, frequently making trips to the Denver Broncos' training facility when his dad was the head coach there. Like Arians, Shanahan was a success on the field, earning a scholarship to Duke as a wide receiver and then finishing his playing career at the University of Texas.
Among the many coaches Shanahan grew to know in his journey toward becoming a head coach, Arians wasn't one of them. In fact, Shanahan said he doesn't know Arians very well but has always been "a huge fan of him." Shanahan liked how Arians ran dynamic offenses in Pittsburgh for many years, and Shanahan has taken concepts from Arians and included them in his own offensive scheme.
"I’ve always followed him," Shanahan said. "He’s a great offensive mind and I like how he carries himself, too.”
From the time Shanahan became the Niners' head coach in January, his straightforward approach with players and media has earned him points with a fan base leery of a previous culture of smoke and mirrors. When asked direct questions by media, Shanahan usually gives a direct answer unless it's something that relates to game strategy.
And if a player doesn't perform, Shanahan will call him out to his face first and then acknowledge it to the press. That's helped him gain the respect of a 49ers locker room that's undergone major change since his arrival.
“You never want someone to sugarcoat anything with you," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "You want directly from the source exactly what he’s thinking. That’s been Kyle since the day I’ve known him. He can’t be a sugarcoat type of guy. He’s going to give it to you exactly how he sees it, right then and there. For me as a player, you always want that. You don’t want to be thinking, ‘Well, is he just trying to be nice about this?’ No.
"Kyle is going to be very blunt, right to the point, and say, ‘Hey, you messed up on this.’ Or even, ‘Hey, great job on this, now when you get this play next time' -- it’s all about getting right to it and not beating around the bush. I think as a player, ultimately that’s what you want. Sometimes the guy who sugarcoats it might make you feel a little bit better about things, but really it’s just hiding what you need to get done anyways.”
Of course, Arians and Shanahan are well-aware that they're still dealing with millionaire athletes who are used to hearing how great they are. Which is why there's a fine line between making it personal and ensuring that players know it comes from a place of trying to make them better.
Arians calls it coaching, not criticism, and Shanahan says it's important to keep in mind that players are normally doing all they can to be successful and sometimes just don't get the job done.
“You try to never embarrass someone," Shanahan said. "You’ve got to realize for the most part, I know it’s not 100 percent this way, those players want to do the job just as good as you want them to do the job. And that’s why usually with me, if you’re working your hardest and doing the best you can, very rarely am I going to have a problem with you. Where I start to get on guys or want to call them out or handle them [in] different ways is when I feel like they are taking shortcuts, they are not doing it as hard as they can, and now they’re letting everyone down. If you get the most out of someone, you just try to keep coaching them. If they can’t get it done, then you do your best to find someone who can.”
When Sunday's game ends and Shanahan and Arians retreat to their respective locker rooms to break down what happened, it's a safe bet the unvarnished truth will be told.
“I just try to be myself, and I think Bruce is himself also," Shanahan said. "I think that’s pretty obvious. People know when you’re not yourself. You’ve got to keep it real. If that’s how you are all the time, you’ve got to be that way with the players. Players, even though it’s tough on them sometimes, if you ask a player, pretty consistently the thing they want the most from coaches is honesty. Then you give it to them and sometimes they don’t like it so much. Usually they respect you for it in the long run.”